Cities on screen: the best movies to take you to Tokyo


This article is part of a Tokyo guide by FT Globetrotter

Nowhere else have moviegoers had two thoughts in mind at the same time like Tokyo? A vision of the city has become a Hollywood staple. It was created by a director born far from Japan – and was meant to be an entirely different city. But Ridley Scott is Blade runner – nominally located in LA – was an obvious riff on 1980s Tokyo, reborn as an omen of the urban future. This made this version of the city the go-to sci-fi shortcut for years to come, giant techno billboards looming above a multitude of neon lanes.

And yet, before and after Ridley Scott, there was also another Tokyo movie. In the films of great directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, it was also the eye-level backdrop for deceptively simple and endlessly rich stories of work and family, crime and punishment. All human life in the here and now, in short, as well as the replicants and the future.

History of Tokyo (1953)

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

‘A quiet magnum opus’: Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ © Photo 12 / Alamy

Where to start ? Master director Yasujiro Ozu’s tranquil magnum opus revolves around the visit to Tokyo of an elderly couple from the provincial port city of Onomichi, arriving to stay with their grown children. On the trip, the family takes a tourist bus, with the tour guide pointing out the great calm of the Imperial Palace – such a contrast to “the bustle of Tokyo today”. But most of the time, city life takes place in a mundane fashion, a world of modest offices and mundane beauty salons. The details Ozu uses may be special – the Atami hot springs outside of town play a key role. But the Tokyo of Tokyo history is as much a symbol as a place – a place where people leave their pasts behind, and with them their families too.

Akira (1988)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

Made in the 1980s, 'Akira' strangely imagined a future Tokyo where the 2020 Olympics would take place

Produced in the 1980s, “Akira” strangely imagined a future Tokyo where the 2020 Olympics would take place © Capital Pictures

The film that more than any other sparked Western interest in manga and anime actually took place in “Neo-Tokyo” of 2019 – three decades after the fictitious destruction of the hometown. Yet the place was a dead ringtone for much of real 1980s Tokyo life, though most of Tokyo Bay was reclaimed for land and the night skyline transformed. into a wall of glittering skyscrapers. The influence of Blade runner had been reflected throughout Japanese culture through the imagination of director Katsuhiro Otomo. An unexpected postscript saw life and art fade further – the plot involving the staging of the 2020 Olympics, duly won by the real Tokyo. (As it turned out, an alien omen was still the graffiti splash that read, “Void it!”)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

Sushi chef Jiro Ono - seen here at work with his son Yoshikazu - and his famous Tokyo restaurant are the subject of a 2011 documentary

Sushi chef Jiro Ono – seen here at work with his son Yoshikazu – and his famous Tokyo restaurant are the subject of a 2011 documentary © AF archive / Alamy

A documentary almost as precise as the Tokyo monument it celebrates, Jiro dreams of sushi takes place mostly on-site at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the famous little restaurant run by sushi master Jiro Ono in an unremarkable basement in Ginza. Here, as foodies know, food awarded three Michelin stars (until the separation in 2019 from the reservation process) is served to just 10 customers at a time, arranged on stools at a single wooden counter. Perfectionism is obvious. Days off are only taken for funerals; the Tsukiji fish market is furiously scented. And then there’s the sheer food porn of it all. Years before Instagram, every piece of nigiri is filmed so beautifully that sushi lovers can weaken just by looking at the screen.

Stray dog ​​(1949)

Where to watch: Amazon prime and other platforms

The police drama

Kurosawa’s crime drama “Stray Dog” takes place among the rubble of post-war Tokyo during the long hot summer of 1949 © Shintoho / Kobal / Shutterstock

Few cities are at their best during a heatwave, but Tokyo’s Stray dog makes the viewer sweat from the start. Witness the scene of bus passengers struggling for air at the start of Akira Kurosawa’s crime drama. The setting is a beaten post-war Tokyo, rubble still strewn over a city filled with pickpockets and veterans embroiled in the underworld. (Venues included the now demolished Korakuen baseball stadium and Ameya Yokocho, then a black market hub.) Kurosawa filmed with truth creaking through the real scorching summer of 1949, every frame cluttered with bodies. The film revolutionized detective drama; Kurosawa’s assistant director Ishiro Honda will soon be making his own film in Tokyo, Godzilla.

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Where to watch: available at Blu ray and DVD

Teruyuki Kagawa as an unemployed employee in 'Tokyo Sonata'

Teruyuki Kagawa as an unemployed employee in ‘Tokyo Sonata’ © Alamy

No link with the director of Stray dog, with Tokyo Sonata Kiyoshi Kurosawa made a film closer to Ozu’s mind. Another story of a family falling apart in a middle class Tokyo, the story begins with the stern Patriarch losing his job due to outsourcing. As an unpaid employee, the horror of his plight in a business city is clear. But as the plot unfolds, the family’s existence increasingly seems to be a facade, in a film anchored in the routine of life in Tokyo – shopping malls, subway stations, construction sites. construction.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes, Youtube and other platforms

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson performed karaoke in

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hit the karaoke in ‘Lost in Translation’ © Elemental Films / TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy

As an update of knowledge on the tourist scene of Tokyo history, that of Sofia Coppola Lost in translation captured Tokyo through the eyes of two American visitors. One was a movie star, the other the wife of a famous photographer, each reunited in mutual disorientation. (They were played, of course, by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.) Their meeting began at the Park Hyatt hotel, but the couple’s escape to Shinjuku and Shibuya – with Coppola firing guerrilla warfare – closed the deal for a loving audience. Fans of the melancholy romance that followed can trace their journey from the New York Bar to the scramble crossing of Shibuya, and even to the Udagawacho branch of the Karaoke Kan channel where Johansson sang a raucous and uncertain “Brass in Pocket”.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

An animated version of the Nativity by the late Satoshi Kon,

An anime take on the Nativity by the late Satoshi Kon, ‘Tokyo Godfathers’ is a festive ‘wild-card treat’ © Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

In the same year that Sofia Coppola was making hay with tourist hotspots, director Satoshi Kon told a story of contemporary Tokyo with a very different effect. Tokyo Sponsors is a wacky Nativity anime set on Christmas Eve with an abandoned newborn baby discovered by three revamped wise men from the outskirts of town: a runaway teenage girl, a homeless trans woman, and an aged street drinker. way. The frenzied plot involves a yakuza assassin – shades of Stray dog – and the result is not only a singular Tokyo story, but also a generic festive treat.

Solaris (1972)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, itunes and other platforms

Tarkovsky's Outer Space Epic 'Solaris' Features Key Scene Set on Earth, Filmed on Tokyo's Shuto Highway

Tarkovsky’s outer space epic ‘Solaris’ features a key scene on Earth filmed on Tokyo’s Shuto Highway © Moviestore Collection / Alamy

Blade runner and Lost in translation will always be the most famous foreigners’ perspective on Tokyo – but another director from beyond Japan has captured the city just as indelibly. Solaris, the sci-fi masterpiece by Russian visionary Andrei Tarkovsky, took place primarily at a space research station, but before that came a brief tour of what history depicts as a city from the future. The result was a five-minute sequence that simply followed a drive along the elevated viaducts and brightly lit tunnels of the Shuto Expressway to Akasaka. The legend was that this was Tarkovsky’s way of eliminating the audience without attention span. True or not, it has become one of the most purely hypnotic sequences in cinema – forever tied to the everyday head-round of modern Tokyo.

Which Tokyo movies would you recommend? Tell us in the comments

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